Bill Nelson: Mubarak will have to go


Published: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 4:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 4:45 p.m.

Many times throughout human history, the yearning for freedom has given rise to civil unrest and disorder. So it was earlier this month in Tunisia. So it is now in Egypt.

On Dec. 17, just hours after being harassed by local authorities, a young Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire. It was a desperate protest against his country’s grinding unemployment and the abuse he suffered at the hands of an authoritarian regime.

Although the fire itself was quickly extinguished, the flames of anger and frustration spread across Tunisia. On Jan. 4, when Mr. Bouazizi died of his injuries, the resulting inferno brought down Tunisia’s longtime ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Fueled by repression and unemployment, and spreading through Facebook and Twitter, the flames of anger and frustration reached Egypt. There, with massive citizen revolt and huge new protests planned for this week, time is running short for longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak’s naming of the head of the country’s intelligence service as his vice president is a step in the right direction, and will satisfy some. But he cannot afford to clamp down again, as he initially tried to do by deploying his security forces and shutting down access to the Internet.

Instead, Mr. Mubarak will have to go, but not without an exit strategy that prevents the government from falling and leaving the door open for extremists.

So far, the U.S. administration has exercised a great deal of caution. If President Obama pushes for Mubarak’s departure, the Egyptian government might fall into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. We might then see a repeat of what happened in Iran after it fell into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979.

That’s why you see the delicate choice of words by our president and secretary of state as they seek to maintain a balanced response to the crisis in Egypt. On Sunday, for instance, Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared on CNN and stressed that "we're not advocating any specific outcome.”

Still, I believe there is a short-term solution that could help calm some of the civil unrest in Egypt: guarantee the people the right to vote in free and fair elections.

To put real credibility into the promises of reform, President Mubarak should immediately submit to this core principle of democracy.

The next presidential election in Egypt is scheduled for September of this year. Right now, there are no term limits in Egypt's constitution restricting Mubarak from running for re-election for the sixth time.

Mubarak must immediately open these elections to international observers and give his written assurance that his name won’t appear as a contender. I believe this could help quell the protests.

Bill Nelson is Florida’s senior U.S. senator and member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.

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